Philippine anti-terrorism law

Rights lawyers hit DOJ shortcuts in PH’s first terror financing conviction

Cong Corrales

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Rights lawyers hit DOJ shortcuts in PH’s first terror financing conviction

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT. the Department of Justice building facade in Manila, Philippines.

LeAnne Jazul

The lawyers say the first conviction under the 11-year-old Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act is the result of a plea deal

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – Organized human rights lawyers and activists have strongly criticized the recent conviction of a former cashier of a Catholic missionary group, saying she chose a plea deal to avoid facing harsher charges that threatened to send her to jail for at least 40 years for terrorist financing.

The woman, Angelie Magdua, was convicted of being an accessory to terrorist financing in a regional court in Iligan City on March 16. 

Her conviction was the first since the Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act was enacted 11 years ago.

Magdua, a former Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) worker, pleaded guilty to being an accessory in all the 55 terrorist financing cases filed against her and 15 others, including Missionary Sisters of Mary (MSN) nuns Emma Teresita Cupin, Maria Fatima Sumugod, Mary Jane Caspillo, and Susan Montaner Dejolde.

Magdua, who worked for RMP for less than a year – from October 2017 to July 2018 – allegedly surrendered to authorities on December 4, 2022. 

Aside from the four nuns and Magdua, the others charged in 2022 were the following:

  • Augustina Juntilla 
  • Melissa Comiso
  • Czarina Golda Musni
  • Maridel Solomon Fano
  • Jhona Ignilan Stokes
  • Hanelyn Caibigan Cespedes
  • Emilio Gabales
  • Mary Louise Dumas
  • Aileen Villarosa
  • Evelyn Naguio
  • Aldeen Yañez

RMP workers Gabales and Yañez, who were under detention, have pleaded not guilty to terrorist financing in an earlier arraignment, while the rest of the accused, including the four nuns, are at large.

In a press statement, Justice Secretary Crispin Remulla said the conviction was considered a big win for the justice system and the fight against terrorism.

Remulla said Magdua’s conviction would serve as the justice department’s prosecutorial foundation in pursuing cases under Republic Act 10168. 

Magdua was one of two cashiers at the RMP, a national organization composed of members of the clergy and lay people but which prosecutors alleged was a conduit for funding the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).

But in 2022, the RMP said the funds in question were from the European Union (EU) which have all been audited and accounted for.

The Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM) said Magdua was only presented to the court on March 16, and that she had been unreachable by her UPLM legal team.

The UPLM, in a statement, said the Department of Justice (DOJ) “was eerily silent over the fact that it was on a plea bargain that, in effect, conveniently bypassed trial of these cases where the testimony of Magdua and the state’s other witnesses would have been subject to judicial scrutiny of the Court.”

Maria Sol Taule, a member of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), criticized the conviction of Magdua via plea bargaining while under the custody of the military, calling it “contrived” and “spurious.” 

Taule said the prosecution avoided a full-blown trial because the case against the RMP was “weak and would not hold water in court.” 

“This reeks of desperation to persecute human rights workers and yield to the authorities by threatening, harassing, intimidating, and forcing them to surrender, and eventually charge them with trumped-up criminal cases,” Taule told Rappler on Monday, April 3.

UPLM secretary-general Beverly Selim-Musni said the conviction by plea bargain did away with the rigors of trial on the merits which would require the DOJ to marshal evidence to establish her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. 

“Nothing could be worse than the DOJ celebrating a conviction of a humanitarian worker under these dark and hard times when the Philippine human rights record is under continuing criticism before the United Nations,” she said.

The cases against the RMP nuns and workers, she said, also highlighted the vilification of institutions and those who have been working at the grassroots levels to help marginalized sectors.

Human rights group Karapatan secretary-general Cristina Palabay said hardly any justice was served in Magdua’s conviction while criticizing the DOJ for capitalizing on the court decision without mentioning that it was the result of a plea bargain.

“The DOJ is likely wary that its witnesses’ credibility will crumble if they are subjected to the defense’s cross-examination, and it wants to make Magdua’s conviction through plea bargaining as the template for other terrorist financing cases,” Palabay said. –

Cong Corrales is an Aries Rufo Journalism fellow.

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